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'Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.'
Much has been said about how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and what we can do to optimize ourselves for it. In this excerpt from his fantastic 1991 lecture, John Cleese offers a recipe for creativity, delivered with his signature blend of cultural insight and comedic genius. Specifically, Cleese outlines "the 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative":
1. Space ("You can't become playful, and therefore creative, if you're under your usual pressures.")
2. Time ("It's not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.")
3. Time ("Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original," and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
4. Confidence ("Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.")
5. Humor ("The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.")
The lecture is worth a watch in its entirety, below, if only to get a full grasp of Cleese's model for creativity as the interplay of two modes of operating – open, where we take a wide-angle, abstract view of the problem and allow the mind to ponder possible solutions, and closed, where we zoom in on implementing a specific solution with narrow precision. Along the way, Cleese explores the traps and travails of the two modes and of letting their osmosis get out of balance.
A few more quotable nuggets of insight excerpted below the video.
Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.
We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem – but! – once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we've made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.
Cleese goes on to caution against a trap in this duality, one particularly hazardous in politics:
To be at our most efficient, we need to be able to switch backwards and forward between the two modes. But – here's the problem – we too often get stuck in the closed mode. Under the pressures which are all too familiar to us, we tend to maintain tunnel vision at times when we really need to step back and contemplate the wider view.
This is particularly true, for example, of politicians. The main complaint about them from their nonpolitical colleagues is that they've become so addicted to the adrenaline that they get from reacting to events on an hour-by-hour basis that they almost completely lose the desire or the ability to ponder problems in the open mode.
Cleese concludes with a beautiful articulation of the premise and promise of his recipe for creativity:
This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: If just you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly but persistent way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.
For a related treat, see Cleese's reprise of the talk nearly two decades later at the 2009 Creativity World Forum.
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On what matters and what doesn't.
Earlier today, we witnessed the gender imbalance in philosophy – an imbalance arguably more pronounced in science than in any other field. It's a systemic problem solved not simply by putting more women in the Science section of the bookstore or on the TED stage or on the science faculties of higher education, but by encouraging more little girls to become scientists in the first place. But, how?
From the delightful Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children comes the following exchange between Einstein and a bright, witty South African girl named Tyfanny, who reminded Einstein of his own granddaughter and with whom he exchanged several letters despite being at the height of his career and cultural prominence.
In a letter dated September 19, 1946, Tyfanny writes:
I forgot to tell you, in my last letter, that I was a girl. I mean I am a girl. I have always regretted this a great deal, but by now I have become more or less resigned to the fact. Anyway, I hate dresses and dances and all the kind of rot girls usually like. I much prefer horses and riding. Long ago, before I wanted to become a scientist, I wanted to b e a jockey and ride horses in races. But that was ages ago, now. I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!
Sometime between September and October 1946 – a snappy response time by the day's standards – Einstein replies:
I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.
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What Freud has to do with Klimt and the neuroscience of a Beethoven symphony.
Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect – artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History's exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science's relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.
Kandel argues – much like physicist Lawrence Krauss recently suggested – that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:
A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.
(Cue in Jonah Lehrer's articulate case for "a fourth culture of knowledge" that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)
But among Kandel's greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)
Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions – and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder's share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.
He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would "contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology."
To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin's photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.
Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists – Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele – who "emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths."
Gustav Klimt, Adele Block-Bauer, 1907. Oil, silver, gold on canvas.
Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele's dress aren't mere decoration – they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:
These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter's seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.
(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele's portrait fetched Klimt $135 million – the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt's otherwise unremarkable career prior.)
Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses – the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From – these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.
Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity – in short, what makes us human – and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.
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'Respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet.'
Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music – not just its creation, but also its consumption – must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we "learn" music? Even more curiously, how do we "learn" to "listen" to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?
From the wonderful vintage book Music: Ways of Listening, originally published in 1982, comes this outline of the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, which author and composer Elliott Schwartz argues have been "dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out" and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute "reading" for "listening" and "writing" for "music," and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.
1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even 'beautiful.' On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children's games.
2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention wen confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.
Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening 'focus' wanders, you an tell where you are.
6. Try to listen objectively an dispassionately. Concentrate upon 'what's there,' and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon 'what's there,' in an objective sense, and don't be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.
7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.
There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on 'what's there.' Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn't exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been 'trained' by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the 'work' is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.
Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book is to reading – a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.
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